Category Archives: Ephemera

Surrounded by Misery

Lt. Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s baptism of fire came at Fredericksburg… His 20th Maine regiment was part of the disastrous third assault wave on Marye’s Heights.  After receiving the withering Confederate fire before the stonewall, the brave men of Maine got their second foolish order of the day- to hold their ground.

Soul of a Lion

Chamberlain and his troops would have to endure an indescribably horrific night… freezing on a battlefield littered with dead and dying comrades.  The men of the 20th Maine, trapped by Confederate fire, were surrounded by incomprehensible misery and death.  Chamberlain did his best to put it into words:

It was a cold night. Bitter, raw north winds swept the stark slopes. The men, heated by their energetic and exciting work, felt keenly the chilling change. Many of them had neither overcoat nor blanket, having left them with the discarded knapsacks. They roamed about to find some garment not needed by the dead…Necessity compels strange uses. For myself it seemed best to bestow my body between two dead men among the many left there by earlier assaults, and to draw another crosswise for a pillow out of the trampled, blood-soaked sod, pulling the flap of his coat over my face to fend off the chilling winds…”

“But out of that silence rose new sounds more appalling still; a strange ventriloquism, of which you could not locate the source, a smothered moan, as if a thousand discords were flowing together into a key-note weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear, yet startling with its nearness; the writhing concord broken by cries for help, some begging for a drop of water, some calling on God for pity; and some on friendly hands to finish what the enemy had so horribly begun; some with delirious, dreamy voices murmuring loved names, as if the dearest were bending over them; and underneath, all the time, the deep bass note from closed lips too hopeless, or too heroic to articulate their agony…”

 

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Garry Owen

The Irish Brigade crossed the Rappahannock river at Fredericksburg… a shadow of its former self.  Three months earlier, along the banks of the Antietam Creek, the Irish Brigade marched to glory with more than 2,000 men.  At Fredericksburg, the newly arrived 28th Massachusetts regiment bolstered the ranks to 1,200, but the veteran regiments had been decimated during the campaigns of 1862.

Meagher salutes his troops…

Don Troiani’s “Garry Owen”

Four Union brigades were beaten back… in front of the stone wall at Marye’s Heights.  The Irish Brigade was next in the fight and started their advance at 1230pm.  The men were briefly unsettled by a muddy canal ditch in the shadow of a low ridge.  The order was given to reform and after a brief pause, bayonets were fixed.  An officer remembered those harrowing moments: “In a few minutes came the word, ‘Attention!’ and every man was upon his feet again; then ‘Fix bayonets!’ and as this was being done, the clink, clink of the cold steel sounding along the line made one’s blood run cold.”  Officers and men fell rapidly as casualties mounted  across the front of the stone wall.  Despite the harrowing losses, the brigade pushed on toward the wall, battling other Irish immigrants.  Of all the Union troops which assaulted Marye’s Heights on December 13, the Irish Brigade advanced the farthest.

Troiani’s depiction of the assault

General Thomas Meagher described… the action,  Thus formed, under the unabating tempest of shot and shell, the Irish Brigade advanced at the double-quick against the rifle-pits, the breastworks, and batteries of the enemy. I myself ordered the advance, encouraged the line, and urged it on; but, owing to a most painful ulcer in the knee-joint, which I had concealed and borne up against for days, I was compelled, with a view to be of any further service to the brigade that day, to return over the plowed field over which we had advanced from the mill-race. I did so to get my horse, which had been left at the head of the street from which our column had debouched, in care of my orderlies, along with the other horses of the field and staff officers of the brigade, Brigadier-General Hancock having suggested that it would be advisable for all such officers to act on foot. On going for the horse on the left of the line, I met Captain Hart, the acting assistant adjutant-general of the brigade, who was moving up from the left to the right with the perfect coolness and intelligent bravery, forming and steadying the men for attack. Halting a moment on the left, I gave the word, and instantly saw the brigade impetuously advance. Passing down the slope, and through crowds of slain and wounded, I reached the spot where I had left my horse and mounted him.

Having mounted, I started with one of the orderlies to rejoin the brigade on the right, and with that view took the street across which the two companies of the Sixty-ninth, under Capt. James Saunders, a staunch and fearless officer, has been deployed as skirmishers. I had not proceeded many paces up this street before I met the remnant of the Sixty-third, bearing the regimental colors, coming toward me, under the command of Captain Gleeson, one of the bravest and most reliable officers of the brigade. With these few survivors of the Sixty-third were a portion of the Sixty-ninth.

Fearing that the enemy might break through our lines, which had begun to waver under those torrents from the musketry and artillery of the enemy that seemed every instant to increase in fury, I halted this handful of the brigade on the street parallel with the mill-race. Here I remained, by order of Brigadier-General Hancock, who personally communicated with me at the time, gathering in the fragments of my brigade, until finally I was ordered by him, through one oh his aides, to fall back and concentrate on the street from which we had commenced our approach to the battle-field. In this street the hospitals of the brigade had been established, and to it, consequently, all the officers and men of the brigade instinctively returned. I was, therefore, enabled, after three or four hours, to ascertain pretty accurately the available force that remained of the brigade. But while the fragments of the brigade were thus being reconcentrated, I had every reason to become convinced that the hospitals were dangerously, if not fatally, exposed; consequently I sent two of my aides, Captains Hart and Lieutenant Blake, of the Eighty-eighth, to Brigadier-General Hancock, to request of him that he would be so good as to authorize me to take what was left of the brigade across the river, the request for such authority being based on the fact that while there were not over 300 of the brigade, maimed and serviceable, who had reported themselves up to that time, the badly disabled were so numerous as to require the assistance of all those who were unhurt. Even while I was waiting for Captain Hart and Lieutenant Blake to return, several discharges of shells and rifle-balls broke through and over the hospitals of the Sixty-ninth and Sixty-third, and Eighty-eighth.  All this time, however, the officers and men of the brigade obeyed my orders and conducted themselves with perfect calmness and cheerfulness…”

Bravery like this is rare in war… but was unusually common during the American Civil War.  Conventional wisdom held that Confederate soldiers most often displayed uncommon valor during the war.  There are no braver soldiers than those who assaulted Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. 

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Most Unfortunate Decision

Ambrose Burnside had done it…. he outmaneuvered Robert E. Lee.  The reluctant commander  guided the massive Army of the Potomac down the Rappahannock river to Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was scrambling to catch up, but Burnside’s path to Richmond temporarily lay open.  He needed pontoon bridges to get his lengthy supply trains across the river- but they were nowhere to be found- Burnside sat on the Eastern shore waiting.  The bridges arrived a week later, but so did Lee’s army.

Reluctant commander with great whiskers

Reluctant commander with great whiskers

There was still an opportunity to move… against Lee before his forces could dig in.  Burnside weighed his options and formed a plan to cross the river quickly at fords south of town.  Mother Nature wasn’t playing fair that week, a heavy storm dropped six inches of snow on December 5, forcing Burnside to reconsider.  Lee’s men dug in on the heights west of town and covered the fords to the north and south.  With Winter closing in, Burnside decided to build his bridges and cross at Fredericksburg.

Soldiers do their duty, but… Burnside’s subordinates were not happy with his decision.  Joseph Hooker let it be known in the council-of-war on December 10.  Burnside responded,

“I have heard your criticisms, gentlemen, and your complaints. You know how reluctantly I assumed the responsibility of command. I was conscious of what I lacked; but still I have been placed here where I am and will do my best. I rely on God for wisdom and strength. Your duty is not to throw cold water, but to aid me loyally with your advice and hearty service.”

Colonel Samuel Zook minced no words when he learned of the advance, “I expect to be sacrificed tomorrow, Goodbye old Boy & if tomorrow night finds me dead remember me kindly as a soldier who meant to do his whole duty.”    

Could see the writing on the wall at Fredericksburg

Could see the writing on the wall at Fredericksburg

**special thanks to Don Pfanz for the sources.

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Liberals Can be Tough

Harry Truman’s Liberalism is too often overlooked by historians… indoctrinated by the historiography of FDR and the New Deal.  Truman’s Fair Deal was every bit as progressive and in regards to civil rights, it far exceeded the progress of his predecessor.

16-truman-w710-h473-2x

Truman was also dealing with the Red Storm rising… the ambitions of Stalin’s Russia in post-war Europe.  Roosevelt had established an amiable tone with the Soviets at Yalta- the direct precursor to the aggressive moves of the Red Army in Eastern Europe.  On April 23, 1945 Truman met with Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov.  The new American President made it clear that policies were changing-

“I explained to him [Molotov] in words of one syllable…that cooperation is not a one-way-street.”
Molotov responded-
“I have never been talked to like that in my life….”
Truman clarified-
“Carry out your agreements and you won’t be talked to like that.”
Listen to me now....

Listen to me now….

The Buck was stopping….

 

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Making the Most of a Bad Situation

“Speaking generally, no penance is like having one’s picture done. You must sit in a constrained and unnatural position, which is a trial to the temper. But I should like to sit to Stuart from the first of January to the last of December, for he lets me do just what I please, and keeps me constantly amused by his conversation.”  John Adams on sitting for Gilbert Stuart’s portrait sessions. 

Only for the conversation

Only for the conversation

 

Gilbert Stuart always claimed his depiction of Washington most authentic… speaking about the famous Lansdowne Portrait- famously rescued by Dolley Madison(or her servants) in 1814.   Stuart cited his authenticity-

“When I painted him [Washington], he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face…”   Gilbert Stuart

Rejecting a third term

Rejecting a third term

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A Soldier’s Love

George McClellan said goodbye to his beloved… Army of the Potomac on November 11, 1862.  He cared deeply for their well being(much too deeply it turned out) and they repaid him with unwavering affection.  Lincoln had to make the decision- The “Young Napoleon” was fighting like the war could go on for decades.  But to his troops, he would forever be “Little Mac.”  He left them with this thought….

Little Mac

Little Mac

“In parting from you I cannot express the love and gratitude I bear to you. As an army you have grown up under my care. In you I have never found doubt or coldness. The battles you have fought under my command will proudly live in our nation’s history. The glory you have achieved, our mutual perils and fatigues, the graves of our comrades fallen in battle and by disease, the broken forms of those whom wounds and sickness have disabled—the strongest associations which can exist among men—unite us still by an indissoluble tie. We shall ever be comrades in supporting the Constitution of our country and the nationality of its people.”

 

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Facts in Five

The Young Napoleon Edition

 

  • George McClellan’s father was a renowned physician and founder of the Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia
  • McClellan graduated West Point ranked second in the vaunted class of 1846- his classmates included Thomas J. Jackson, Jesse Reno, Cadmus Wilcox, AP Hill, and George Pickett
  • Jefferson Davis was an influential mentor in McClellan’s life- sending him on secret reconnaissance missions into the Caribbean, and to the Crimea as our official observer during the Crimean War
  • Small victories in western Virginia would pave the way for West Virginia statehood- a profile of him in the New York Herald brought national attention to the “Napoleon of the present War”
  • Winfield Scott cautioned Lincoln against appointing McClellan General-in-chief in addition to his army command- Little Mac’s response was, “I can do it all” 
Not an ideal pairing

Not an ideal pairing

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